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Hurricane Sandy Prompts Question: Does NYC Need a Levee System?


In the wake of the superstorm, a Dutch engineer shares his opinions on the future of New York Harbor.

Van Ledden is an engineer for the Dutch water management consultancy firm Royal HaskoningDHV; he was active in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and consulted for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Van Ledden helped design the 'Hurricane Surge Atlas,' an algorithm-based computer program that models the potential impact of an approaching storm based on data from 300 hypothetical hurricanes. It was predictions calculated by Atlas that led New Orleans to close its storm surge barriers as Hurricane Isaac approached in 2011. While rainwater flooding and extensive wind damage did occur -- and was responsible for the loss of three-fourths of the city's power -- the $14.5 billion flood protection system was not breached, and seawater remained in the Gulf.

However, massive storm barriers like those in place in New Orleans, or the dikes famously built throughout the Netherlands over the past century, or the 3,000-foot sea barrier that has protected Providence, Rhode Island, since 1966, may not be the answer for New York City.

"At the end of day, it is a question not so much about whether you use a levee or a barrier or not. I think a lot of these [proposals] are feasible -- at least technically speaking," van Ledden says.

Among these are Stony Brook University's Storm Surge Research Group's 2004 proposal for a three-tiered barrier system, that would see movable gates put in place in the upper East River, beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and at Arthur Kill between New Jersey and Staten Island.

According to the Associated Press, two European engineering firms have proposed seawalls to section off most of New York City at the cost of a little more than $6 billion. The two firms were CH2M Hill of Scotland, which worked on the 16-mile barrier shielding St. Petersburg in Russia, and Dutch engineering firm Arcadis NV (PINK:ARCAY), which has worked on extensive sea barriers in the Netherlands.

But, would this be money well spent?

"First, you need to ask what kind of protection a city like New York wants to have against the water, given the risks they face....Then, you need to find the cost-effective solution to reduce the risk," says van Ledden. "And maybe at the end of the day, a big barrier turns out to be very effective -- like its turned out to be very effective in Rotterdam -- but for other cases a barrier is not effective in terms of cost-benefit, and you
can start to look at all kinds of local [options] to protect critical infrastructure, or to put in place flexible barriers around the low lying areas."

Flexible barriers could be used along Manhattan's vulnerable seawalls, which were quickly overcome this past week by Sandy's 14-foot surges. They might look like these temporary barriers being assembled in the Dutch city of Nijmegen (see photo).

Implementing local, customized options such as these is a strategy known as 'resilience.' It would favor small, localized solutions over larger projects like the 5-mile barrier stretching from Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, to Sandy Hook in New Jersey proposed by CH2M. These smaller solutions might include the aforementioned flexible barriers, or the use of subway flood doors to protect New York City's vital underground infrastructure.

Even huge, inflatable subway plugs currently being developed by the Federal government to protect subways against terrorist attacks could be used to prevent water from destroying vital transportation lines.
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